It’s been nearly a month since my last column, and it was a busy time as I contemplated several major life changes – the biggest, a move from my beloved cottage on Lido Key – and prepared for the arrival of family members visiting Florida for the holidays .
My brother, two of my four sisters, a niece and nephew and their spouses, and six grandchildren, aged 3 to 15, flew in the week before Christmas, culminating months of anticipation. Two of these nuclear families live in British Columbia and London, so it was an especially welcome and long-awaited rendezvous. Being with my siblings and reconnecting with the grandkids – who long ago named me “Mahvelous” after a dress-up session during which they donned my ballroom dance costumes – was the best gift I could have asked for.
Immediately after their departure, however, I came down with a terrible cold/flu/crud that was not COVID but left me equally exhausted. Without doubt, the illness was physical, but along with it came a heavy melancholy. As someone who has struggled off and on with depression, the warning signs are all too familiar: My energy level drops. I stop texting, talking on the phone or going out socially. I sleep too much and eat too little. Even listening to music feels painful. Like a turtle or a bug poked by some irritant, I retract from contact; if I could pull my head inside my shell I would.
This all coincided with the first of the year – always a double whammy for me because it marks another birthday – and that unspoken pressure to “clean the slate,” “turn over a new leaf,” “make a fresh start” or whatever else euphemism you choose for catalyzing a new and improved you. The expectation left me feeling discouraged, defeated, even resentful, instead of inspired or hopeful.
On Facebook I read of others’ resolutions, mostly directed towards physical health and appearance: to exercise more, eat healthier, abandon a COVID wardrobe, join a gym. Those are challenges I addressed long ago; I have a regular (some would say fanatic) exercise routine, eat well but sparingly and am grateful for a body that allows me to do most everything I aspire too even if it doesn’t look as good as it once did. I’ve devoted far less effort to having a consistently healthy mindset.
You’d think someone who has been a mental health advocate for more than a decade, who has worked personally and professionally to normalize mental health challenges and defeat the shame/denial/embarrassment/stigma that holds people back from seeking help, would be the first to follow her own advice. But I continued to bridle each time a worried family member urged me to return to therapy, attend a group meeting, “Do something!”
As a strong independent woman who has managed single motherhood, raising a child with challenges, forging a successful journalism career and building financial security on my own, I remained stubbornly insistent that I could handle this on my own. (With a little self-criticism added in for my failure to do so.)
But seeing my own mortality reflected in the aging faces of my loved ones, I realized I am running out of time. I was able to call myself out on my own hypocrisy and admit to myself that what I want most – and yes, deserve – is to finally be at peace with myself, with others and with the world. To find that acceptance and contentment, with whatever assistance is necessary, is now my daily intention.
I won’t call it a resolution because the word carries for me too much of an implication of stoic forebearance. A commitment to devote as much attention, awareness and effort to being mentally healthy as I already do to being physically fit should not be begrudged, but joyfully welcomed. It took me long enough to get here.
The COVID pandemic, our political and social strife and the financial strains of the inflationary economy have left us all more mentally drained and strained than we’ve acknowledged. Decades of neglecting our collective mental health has led to many of our current social ills and fueled the contentious tenor of our times. Add that to whatever emotional baggage or past trauma in our lives we’ve yet to address and there are a lot of unhappy people out there. Our elected officials, who have long promised a boost in mental health funding, would do well to make that a reality in the new year as well.
The truth is our outer world can only be a reflection of how healthy we are internally. If we are ruled by stress, anxiety, our past difficulties and the dysfunctional ways we’ve created to deal with them, it can’t help but play out in our every choice and contact. Making a commitment to a mentally healthier you first is the first step in your becoming precisely the kind of family member, neighbor and citizen who can strengthen our social fabric and add to our collective well-being.
So this year, consider whether losing that extra five pounds so you can fit into your old jeans is anywhere near as important as lifting the weight of the world off your shoulders.
Contact Carrie Seidman firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-238-0392.